MIDCOAST—Back in the 1980s, there were scant services, if any, for families with children who had behavioral health challenges. In 1987, a Maine mom (and foster parent to nearly 100 kids) named Charlene Milliken realized the serious need for parent support services, and, almost accidentally, started the G.E.A.R. Parent Network.

Her own experiences told her that parents needed to learn about both navigating the system and about advocacy, and that realization helped shape G.E.A.R. into the unique organization it is.

Milliken passed in 2010, and today the statewide network is directed by Cindy Seekins, who came on board as a parent seeking help in 1988.

G.E.A.R., which stands for Gaining Empowerment Allows Results, is run by parents, for parents of special needs kids. Whether a child suffers from ADHD, anxiety or OCD, the organization works to empower and educate parents. It also has a network of certified parent-peers who are trained to be part of a family’s “wrap around” services team.

Seekins came to Milliken in 1988, wanting support and to learn more about her youngest child’s behavioral health issues.

“He also had developmental delays that were identified in Head Start, and we did begin early intervention,” Seekins said. “In my day, programs were rare, and for me it was about getting educated about his needs and advocating. Due to our son’s high needs, our family became the first in the state to receive in-home supports. I started out being a very shy parent, but raising a special needs child changes all that.”

The organization didn’t receive serious funding and support from the state until 1992, and when it did, the grassroots group of parents helping parents grew to include support groups, workshops and classes offered around the state.

Today, G.E.A.R. trains and credentials parents who are hired by mental health agencies to be part of a family’s “wrap around services” (behavioral health home) team, which might include a case manager, doctor, therapist, special educator or law enforcement. These parent peers are trained to provide the best kind of support to other parents: That of someone who has lived in their shoes.

G.E.A.R.’s Behavioral Health Homes Certification Training for Parent/Family Peers is offered three times a year, and was developed using their own knowledge and lived experiences and materials from the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health and their state organizations and chapters.

“Sometimes, in dealing with the system of care, a family can have a very negative experience,” Seekins said. “We get judged. We get judged by providers, by caregivers, even by our own families. It’s so important to not feel alone, or isolated.”
Building trust is a key factor with parents. “Our services can be even more beneficial at times because we have had the same experiences, and these parents have perhaps been traumatized, have experienced negative outcomes, or poor service delivery. They don’t trust anymore. Families need to build trust, and having a parent-peer as part of the team helps that process move forward more quickly.”

G.E.A.R. also offers regular, free workshops and courses for parents (and grandparents) on a wide range of topics. One topic is self-care.

“How are you going to care for your kids if you don’t take care of yourself?” Seekins said. “Self-care is so important … and you are the model for your kids, they grow up doing what you do.”

Seekins puts the benefit of the program into a few succinct words: “Healthy families are better equipped to support healthy children.”

G.E.A.R. also teaches families, via workshops and outreach, about something called ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences). For many families, this education “provides an ‘ah ha!’ moment,” Seekins said. “They never really knew about the impact of childhood trauma. It’s so important.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this week is Children’s Mental Health Awareness week. The website has information on G.E.A.R. events in the greater Midcoast area (and around the state) in May and June, such as workshops on “Positive Behavioral Supports and Tantrum Management: Self-Preservation and Success in Parenting Children with Behavioral Health Needs” and “Impulsivity and Disruptive Behaviors in Children and Youth.”

A Family Fun and Wellness Activity will take place on May 26 in Rockland. Learn about something called “letterboxing,” which combines the features of a treasure hunt and nature walk for some healthy outdoor time.

“Juvenile justice, child welfare, foster care, special education, children’s behavioral health and community mental health … we work with families who are involved in all of those systems,” Seekins said, “and we help them learn to advocate, navigate, and we educate. That’s what we do.”

In 2017, G.E.A.R. hosted 178 workshops, with 953 attendees, and held 188 support groups, with 937 people participating. They made contact with 5,418 families around the state of Maine. Seekins smiles when she adds, “Also, we have a 99 percent parent satisfaction rate.”

For more information, call 800-264-9224, or visit www.crisisandcounseling.org/services/gear.

G.E.A.R. Events in May and June
• “Positive Behavioral Supports and Tantrum Management: Self-Preservation and Success in Parenting Children with Behavioral Health Needs,” 1 to 3 p.m. May 17, Midcoast Maine Community Action, 34 Wing Farm Parkway, Room 200, Bath; and 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. June 28, Curtis Memorial Library, Seminar Room, 23 Pleasant St, Brunswick.
• “Impulsivity and Disruptive Behaviors in Children and Youth,” 1 to 3 p.m. June 21, Midcoast Maine Community Action, 34 Wing Farm Parkway, Room 200, Bath.
• Family Fun and Wellness Activity, 10 to 11:30 a.m. May 26, Pen Bay Medical Center’s Wellness Trail in Rockland. A combined letter box adventure and nature hike. See the G.E.A.R. website for more information.
• Parents with tweens may want to note “Do you speak Teen?” on June 14 in Rockland.
• For interested parents, educators or others that work with families and children, a workshop on child abuse and neglect and its impacts on families and communities will be held May 18 in Rockland, and May 24 in Brunswick at the Curtis Memorial Library.